Nancy Brinker spent the past 25 years working to boost awareness—and the chance of a cure—for breast cancer. As founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (named for her sister, Susan, who died of the disease in 1980),Brinker has devoted the better part of her adult life not only to battling breast cancer, but to eradicating the stigma that surrounds it.
But when President Bush named her ambassador to Hungary in 2001, Brinker traded in the title of America’s number-one breast cancer crusader for that of U.S. diplomat. She spent two years in that job, and recently returned to diplomatic work to assume an even loftier post: chief of protocol for the United States under the State Department.
As protocol chief, Brinker accompanies the president on official visits abroad and serves as his personal representative and liaison to the foreign diplomats stationed in Washington. She’s also responsible for planning, hosting and officiating ceremonial events for visiting heads of state, as well as managing Blair House, the president’s guesthouse.
Brinker, who described herself as a “fierce patriot” in an interview with The Washington Diplomat, said she views her current government service as a debt she needed to pay. “This is my time to give back for years of freedom and everything I had and my family had,” she explained.
Brinker, herself a breast cancer survivor, will still have an opportunity to promote breast cancer awareness—only now it will be on a global scale. The State Department has launched a partnership with the United Arab Emirates and parts of Latin America to link U.S. medical experts, fundraisers, health-research activists and businesses with counterparts in those areas of the world in an effort to develop breast cancer awareness and expand research.
Brinker said she’s gratified to be able to continue her groundbreaking cancer initiatives in regions where the stigma and embarrassment of breast cancer is still a sad fact of life. She noted that the concept of “medical diplomacy,” or sharing U.S. medical research and technology with other nations, is very high on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s agenda. “Medical diplomacy is what people want,” Brinker said. “Even though people criticize it, we have one of the finest health care systems in the world.”
At Brinker’s swearing-in ceremony in early October (see also Oct. 18 Lifestyle column of the Diplomatic Pouch), Rice joked that the new protocol chief’s unflappable demeanor might just be her strongest asset in the job. “You need an unerring sense of reserve and calm, just in case something goes wrong, which it almost always will,” the secretary said, drawing laughter from a State Department audience familiar with the stresses and rigors of formal diplomacy.
But on a serious note, Rice said that Brinker’s expertise in the realm of medical diplomacy was a key reason she wanted her in the job.
In fact, the Komen Foundation is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists with a mission to save lives, ensure quality care and promote science to find cures for the disease. Through events such as the Komen Race for the Cure, the organization has raised and distributed nearly class=”import-text”>2007November.Breast Cancer Crusader.txt billion, making it the world’s largest breast cancer nonprofit, and Komen for the Cure maintains an impressive network of more than 70,000 volunteers, 100 staff members and 125 affiliates worldwide.
Rice said that Brinker will “help us connect with people across the world who need a way to deal with terrible diseases like breast cancer, because in much of the world, it is still a disease that is hidden in the shadows.”
Of course, Brinker’s new job entails much more than medical diplomacy—it requires skill and savvy in the realm of traditional diplomacy as well. Fortunately, she’s had some practice. President Bush—an old friend of Brinker’s from Texas—appointed her ambassador to Hungary, a post she held with considerable distinction, according to Rice.
Rice said Brinker’s track record as an advocate and organizational leader at the Susan G. Komen Foundation—not to mention as an ambassador—prepared her well for her vaunted new State Department post.
“She brings together these great personal skills and great personal talents with an innovative and creative mind about how to use this role, with the experience to do it well,” Rice said. “I am certain she is someone that will therefore be very important in helping us to push forward the business of transformational diplomacy—the business of helping other people to live better lives around the world, and having them say the United States of America is a good and caring friend.”
Brinker said she anticipates using her new post to offer ambassadors and other diplomats in Washington a more personal connection to this presidential administration. “This mission of outreach to the diplomatic community is very high on my list of things to do.”
This could include State Department-sponsored trips to U.S. cities and towns—other than New York and Washington. Brinker also hopes to offer more personalized briefings to diplomats who sometimes might feel as if they are outside looking in on U.S. policy-making and culture.
“A lot of diplomacy is personal engagement, or it needs to be,” Brinker said. “At a time when we have a lot of misunderstandings in the world, I think it’s more important that all of us reach out in whichever way we can.”
Brinker has been charged with helping to improve the overall experience for more than 150,000 foreign diplomats serving in the United States—a daunting task, which is made all the more challenging by the myriad formalities surrounding the position. Brinker acknowledged that these formalities—ensuring proper protocol when a head of state visits the White House and resides in the Blair House, for example—will be difficult to master, but she’s confident her past will serve her well in her new position.
“First appearances are everything and it’s an extremely important position in that sense. My life has been so much having to do all of the policy kinds of things, and yet so much of my life has also been about diplomatic issues—learning when to be assertive and when not to be, and learning how to stick with something.”
Brinker said she takes her new role very seriously at a time when a war is raging in Iraq and many are criticizing America’s place in the world. At her swearing-in ceremony, she said each connection that the U.S. government makes with its diplomatic guests in Washington helps to strengthen friendships abroad.
“We’re not only welcoming dignitaries, coordinating ceremonies and credentialing diplomats,” Brinker said. “Every time we reach out and connect with a guest to our country, we are building bridges of mutual understanding that are at the very core of the heart of our diplomatic relationships.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.